They have seen his type before: a mobile quarterback with a knack for improvisation and the willingness to take chances.
It did not go well. In Week 2, Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield torched Ohio State’s defense, throwing for 386 yards and three touchdowns in the Sooners’ 31-16 victory. The Buckeyes haven’t faced a comparable quarterback since then, but they will on Saturday when Trace McSorley leads No. 2 Penn State into Ohio Stadium.
“Not only is he very gifted and can avoid defensive players, but the scheme itself presents a lot of problems,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano said. “Their offense makes you defend from sideline to sideline.
“It also makes you defend vertically 60 yards deep, and he can do that. He can throw the (deep) shot, and he can stretch you sideline to sideline both in the run and the pass game.”
Ohio State would prefer to play against a pure pocket passer. With its ravenous defensive line, the Buckeyes like nothing more than sending wave after wave of rushers, confident that the quarterback won’t make them pay for aggressiveness.
McSorley can. McSorley is not a Mayfield clone; the Oklahoma quarterback has a stronger arm and is an inch taller and 25 pounds heavier. But McSorley is quite resourceful and has a knack for rising to the occasion.
He has improved significantly since last year’s defeat of Ohio State, when he completed only 8 of 23 passes.
“What doesn’t he do well?” Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker said. “That’s the great question: What doesn’t he do well? It seems the offense in general does a great job of doing their job to the best of their ability, and their ability is very good.”
With running back Saquon Barkley, tight end Mike Gesicki and receiver DaeSean Hamilton, Penn State doesn’t rely on McSorley to do it all. But he is the conductor.
As is the trend these days, Penn State uses a lot of run-pass option plays in which McSorley must make split-second decisions. Ohio State must pressure McSorley and squeeze the pocket with a disciplined rush that doesn’t allow for escape routes.
“He’s going to try to evade all pressure and get up through the line and make some plays with his feet,” Buckeyes defensive end Tyquan Lewis said. “He’s really good at running. He reads the ends and the linebackers on the read option really well. He slow-plays it. His reads are very, very efficient.”
Ohio State freshman Tate Martell has simulated McSorley on the scout team this week. Like McSorley, Martell is undersized but gifted with improvisational ability.
“We’re fortunate to have Tate doing that,” Schiano said. “We have really good young coaches, and they get with these guys and they watch the tape of McSorley.
“Tate is so dedicated to what we’re doing. He studies McSorley and tries to do everything the same way McSorley does it, even though it may not be the way he naturally does it.”
Martell also played the role of Mayfield on the scout team before the Oklahoma game. The Buckeyes hope they have more success this time.